Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Our TownDeaf West at Pasadena Playhouse
Review by Sharon Perlmutter

Deric Augustine and Sandra Mae Frank
Photo by Jenny Graham
In the press release for Deaf West's production of Our Town, Jane Kaczmarek gets top billing. But she isn't the lead. The lead of this show is Sandra Mae Frank, who creates an Emily Webb to remember. Frank's Emily is perky and confident. Even in anger, she's bubbly and nearly irrepressibly in her joy: making Emily's journey through Thornton Wilder's classic the center of our attention. As is traditional in Deaf West's shows, deaf actors are partnered with hearing actors who voice their characters. For Emily, Frank is perfectly matched by Sharon Pierre-Louis, who provides a cheerful, enthusiastic voice that is so on point, you sometimes think Frank is voicing the character herself.

Another actor pairing which is similarly perfect is that of Russell Harvard as Emily's father, Mr. Webb, and Leonard Kelly-Young as his voice. Both performances evoke the word "homespun," as Mr. Webb amiably delivers folk wisdom throughout the piece.

But the production isn't all deaf actors signing paired with hearing actors speaking. In some instances, a hearing actor will sign and voice the character him- or herself. And while some, like Annika Marks as Mrs. Webb, make a solid effort at it, others aren't quite up to the challenge. Emily's beau, George Gibbs, for example, is played by Deric Augustine. Augustine captures the character in speech quite well; the archaic language of turn of the (20th) century America sounds natural coming from him, and he easily conveys George's affection for Emily, as well as his attempts to control his impulsiveness. But none of that comes through in his signing. The morning before George's wedding to Emily, he expresses his doubts to Emily's father, saying something like, "You do believe in marriage, don't you, sir?" He signs only "You believe marriage." The fault isn't in the ASL Masters' translation; the problem is that ASL is a language of emphasis and expression, and there is nothing in Augustine's signing of these three words that conveys any of the deference, nervousness, and desire for reassurance that we hear in his dialogue. Augustine would be terrific in a straightforward spoken word production, but in one in which he has to sign for himself, he needs a lot more rehearsal.

Which, sadly, brings us back to Kaczmarek, as the Stage Manager. Actually, she's only half of the Stage Manager, as she shares the role with three signing performers: Alexandria Wailes, Troy Kotsur, and Russell Harvard (each of whom also plays a sizeable role in the action). And, unfortunately, Kaczmarek doesn't always hold up her end. Part of it is the nature of the beast. The role of the Stage Manager is very description-heavy; it's her job to paint pictures of life in Grover's Corners with Wilder's words. And the problem is that she's constantly being upstaged by signers who are painting pictures in the air with their hands. Kaczmarek can say that Mrs. Webb's garden contains sunflowers, but how can that compare when the signer next to her is showing us the petals turning toward the dawn? It reaches the point where it starts to look like Kaczmarek is just translating the signing Stage Managers for the signing-impaired people in the audience. (And none of this is helped by the facts that, at the performance I attended, she tripped on some lines, messed up some others, and seemed way out of her depth when a cute bit of staging required her to make part of a sign with the other Stage Managers.) Sometimes, Kaczmarek conveys the emotional content of her lines, particularly as the play moves on, but it doesn't happen often enough.

Production values are first rate, especially Jared A. Sayeg's lighting, which is sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes stark, and always always directs your eye exactly where it needs to be.

The play itself holds up, as befits a classic. Both of its time and timeless, it earns chuckles when mention is made of things that seem like 21st century problems, like when an "audience member" angrily asks if the citizens of Grover's Corners are aware of social injustice, and demands to know why they don't do something about it. And, of course, the overall themes regarding life and what you should do with it will remain relevant as long as humans walk the earth.

But it takes so long to get to those themes. It isn't that the show moves slowly; the pace actually feels pretty brisk for a three-act play. But there is little to hold your interest in the first act; our introduction to Grover's Corners is inoffensive enough, but not particularly catchy. It is only when the second act starts narrowing its focus onto Emily that we find someone to care about, which sets up the third act payoff. You'll likely be affected by the production, but you may also wonder if, had the company been a bit more prepared, you would have been more moved.

The Deaf West co-production of Our Town runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through October 22, 2017. For tickets and information, see

Pasadena Playhouse: Danny Feldman, Producing Artistic Director: and Deaf West Theatre: DJ Kurs Artistic Director: present Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Scenic Design David Meyer; Costume Design Ann Closs Farley; Lighting Design Jared A. Sayeg; Sound Design Leon Rothenberg & Jonathan Burke; ASL Masters Joshua Castille, Charles Katz; Casting by Telsey + Company, Tiffany Little Canfield, CSA; Associate Director Srđa Vasiljević; Production Stage Manager Jenny Slattery; Stage Manager Jessica R. Aguilar; General Manager Joe Witt; Technical Director Brad Enlow; Production Manager Chris Cook; Press Representative Patty Onagan. Choreographed by David Dorfman. Directed by Sheryl Kaller.

Stage Manager: Jane Kaczmarek
Stage Manager/Mrs. Gibbs: Alexandria Wailes
Stage Manager/Simon Stimson: Troy Kotsur
Stage Manager/Mr. Webb: Russell Harvard
Emily Webb: Sandra Mae Frank
Voice of Emily Webb: Sharon Pierre-Louis
George Gibbs: Deric Augustine
Mrs. Webb: Annika Marks
Dr. Gibbs: Jud Williford
The People of Grover's Corners: Marie-France Arcilla, Harold Foxx, David Gautreaux, Marco Gutierrez, Leonard Kelly-Young, Dot-Marie Jones, Amanda McDonough, Natasha Ofili, Sharon Pierre-Louis, On Shiu